John McGinnis always dreamed he’d fly. He was five years old in 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and that made him want to be an astronaut more than anything. He saw in the “The Jetsons” the promise of a flying car and a colorful Orbit City built for a flying population. Like most of us, he marveled at the galaxy far, far away in the 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope filled with swift TIE fighters and X-wings.
Lots of people dream of flying, but besides boarding a jumbo plane now and then, the dream goes no further. McGinnis is different. He’s building an aircraft in a garage in Kalispell. It’s a small plane called Synergy, a cutting-edge, original design that he’s creating with the intention of it becoming the minivan of the skies. It’s an aircraft meant to be assembled with relative ease, flown in the same way one drives an automatic car, and affordable enough to be attained by the average household. It could be the minivan of the skies, except it would have better fuel efficiency and an engine that’s as quiet as the clouds.
John says the whole project will cost $1.5 million.
It sounds far-fetched, and maybe it is, but McGinnis says that defeatist line of thinking is part of the problem. Airplane technology hasn’t come very far over the years because there’s little incentive to make better aircrafts. The Federal Aviation Administration deserves some of the blame for its cumbersome rules and regulations; aviation enthusiasts like to poke fun at the agency with a fake slogan that reads, “FAA Mission: We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”
The average age for most planes is about 35 years old. The designs are 50 years old and based on 1930s technology and 1950s aerodynamics. Planes haven’t changed, McGinnis says, they’ve just quadrupled in relative cost.
“There has been a vacuum for the innovation—the necessary breakthrough innovation that would change the paradigm and bring money to the process of producing and selling airplanes,” he says. “I know why. It’s a very difficult market to enter. It’s highly regulated, it’s full of risk.”
With so few breakthroughs, aerospace investment is hard to secure. With such little investment, change can only happen through nontraditional measures and extreme ingenuity.
Building a plane in a garage in northwestern Montana just may be the perfect plan to changing an entire industry—and how we live.
Pat McGinnis, John’s father, lives on a pastoral piece of land in Kalispell. Bird houses nestle in the trees and a blind squirrel, which Pat rescued, scurries around in the home Pat built for it. A rustic wooden shop on stilts hosts a gallery of tools Pat has carefully refurbished. All this countryside beauty doesn’t prepare you for the futuristic vision inside the large garage next to the shop. The pod-shaped body of the Synergy aircraft sits partially constructed in the center of the room. The front canopy curves across the cockpit and five minivan seats act as placeholders on the craft’s floor before new seats are made. The landing wheel props up one end. On the smooth side of the plane, a small hatch that looks like the fuel compartment door on a car opens to reveal the aircraft’s door handle. Next to the craft is a CAD/CAM machine, a computer-controlled milling machine, which John uses to precisely cut the parts that he’s designed with high-end engineering software.
On any day of the week you might glimpse John and Pat—plus John’s wife, four kids and a myriad of volunteers—working on parts of the aircraft. Pieces of it in various stages—from its early stage in aerospace foam to the later stage of carbon fiber—cover the table tops. The walls are cloaked in ear protection gear and masks, the benches to the side of the room colonized by several laptops, the screens lit up by data testing his aeronautical ideas. Pictures of classic aircraft like Hellcats, Sky Raiders, Hopper Hurricanes and Spitfire wallpaper one side of the room. Above the plane-in-progress is a fully-developed one-fourth scale version of Synergy attached to the ceiling, its nose pushing up into the air like it’s about to bust out of its chains and take off.
scene may evoke Doc Brown’s mad scientist shop from Back to the Future, but it’s a mistake to dismiss the engineer as merely an eccentric chasing a dream in a garage. John, who also runs his own three-dimensional modeling company, MC Squared Designs, started building Synergy in 2009. Since then, his ideas have generated buzz from articles in Wired, Popular Science and AeroPunk magazine. NASA has a profile page for the Synergy company on its website. John gets calls daily from people wanting to order planes—orders he can’t fulfill until his original is completed. Designers from large companies inquire constantly as to his design, which remains largely under wraps. Curious professional engineers and engineering students from MIT and Stanford have traveled on their own dime to work on the aircraft with him in Kalispell.
Here’s what the buzz is about: all airplanes encounter turbulence during flight, which can cause friction and makes the plane less efficient. Every part of Synergy—the body, wings, engine, etc.—is designed to reduce drag. In fact, with the help of its low-powered propeller, Synergy actually reduces drag to the point of producing “negative drag.” John says the plane has 10 times the fuel efficiency of a small jet.
Many of the particular design features that make Synergy so efficient are hidden in its core or revealed only through complex equations, except for one: its sci-fi-looking double box tail wings. They look like rectangles and are made to glide in a way that keeps the plane from ever stalling.
“When we describe how much power it takes to move something through fluid, like a ship through a canal, we talk in terms of horsepower,” says John. “If you use some of that horsepower differently—not just to make thrust but to overcome drag—you only need half the horsepower. So, on 200 horsepower we’re going to set world records. In fact we’re going to set world records every time we fly.”